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Enhancing Fire-Rescue Human Capital: Succession Planning and Implementation

Over the last several decades, leaders in the fire-rescue service have seen an entire generation of senior officers and other key department members retire. As these seasoned veterans have departed, an incredible amount of institutional experience and memory has walked out the door with them.

Yet, more is being lost than meets the eye. Over the last four decades, the fire-rescue service has made an attempt to hire and promote a diverse workforce to serve diverse communities and to offer divergent ideas to improve the quality of service delivered.

As many have observed, these diversity efforts have fallen short and they’re now reaching new crisis proportions because the relatively few men and women of diverse cultures and backgrounds who have been promoted to high-ranking positions are also retiring. As in the 1960s–1980s, we’re once again facing large diversity voids at the bottom and the top.

The time has come for today’s leaders to embrace, develop and implement succession planning and management. Survey data obtained from the 2016 Volunteer Combination Officers Section provide further evidence that the fire-rescue service recognizes the need for succession planning.

Let’s examine the foundation, the method and the outcomes and challenges associated with the succession-planning process.


A well-developed and -implemented program should address and embrace the following:

  • Continuation of quality service, including but not limited to:
    • Community safety via risk management
    • Leadership development
    • Ability to meet future needs
  • Ownership of the future:
    • Clear vision and values, prepared, set and modified as needed
    • Expectations shared among team members
    • Full buy-in to the evolving mission
    • Meeting team members’ expectations and internal drivers


The program must include:

  • Setting team expectations:
    • Top down and bottom up
    • Clear pathway to leadership development
    • Promotional preparation
  • Developing a specific succession plan:
    • What do we need our team members to know?
    • What do our team members believe they need to know?
    • What do we need to know from our team members?
  • Developing a specific implementation plan:
    • What is the timeline?
    • What is the order of the succession plan?
    • What positions are addressed and in what order?
    • What is the modification plan as each step is implemented and evaluated?

Based on our experience the most successful succession plans and processes include extensive collaboration, including:

  • Labor, volunteer and executive team trust
  • Actual belief in the vision and values
  • Participatory processes and feedback
  • Value to the team members, not just to the organization

Absent collaboration, the succession plan, process and hard work will most likely end up as yet another unused binder on your shelf or unread file in your computer.


What should I expect from my succession plan?

  • A comprehensive succession plan and a process that has been implemented
  • Training courses and plans that include both technical and formal education that is supported
  • Support for attending training, conferences and other leadership growth opportunities beyond the local area, such as at the state and national level
  • Comprehensive position task books that clearly explain the path and requirements to success
  • A living succession-plan document that’s reviewed and updated on a regular basis to reflect the organization’s needs


Here are a few challenges you can plan for:

  • Sustaining trust among executive, labor leaders and volunteers
  • Maintaining an open, participative process
  • Getting everyone to actually sit down and devise a plan
  • Gaining and maintaining the support of decision-makers

The succession planning and implementation process is necessary to ensure our industry:

  • Retains its institutional knowledge
  • Develops leaders who can keep their employees and communities safe
  • Develops and retains a diverse organization that reflects the community it serves
  • Addresses the future of a changing fire-rescue industry and prevents the industry from extinguishing itself.


Information for this article was derived from Emergency Services Consulting International’s (ESCI’s) team of experienced professionals, whose backgrounds include development and implementation of succession plans and process for the fire-rescue service.

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